Smart-home devices have plenty of connected tricks up their collective sleeve, but thanks to a glut of walled-off wireless protocols they aren't always great at communicating with one another. That's where control devices like the Staples Connect hub come into play. Acting like a router for your gadgets, the hub uses a variety of built-in wireless radios to communicate with your stuff and ensure that everything plays well together within a singular user experience.
That's the same pitch as you'll hear from Wink and SmartThings, with hubs that cost $50 and $100, respectively. The new and improved D-Link version of the Staples Connect Hub sits right in the middle at $80. Aside from new support for Bluetooth and ZigBee, the D-Link hub boasts a better-looking build than the original Linksys version, as well as a design that lets you untether it from your router and stash it wherever you like.
The Staples Connect platform has seen a few key improvements since I last tested it, too. Along with sprucing up its controls a bit and adding a very helpful "Modes" feature, Zonoff (the Staples Connect platform provider) has announced support for new devices -- most recently, high-end smart televisions and Bose speakers.
However, you still won't find support for popular gadgets from Nest and Belkin WeMo (Zonoff tells us Nest support is coming in the next version of the app, due at the end of March), and camera support is limited to subpar options from D-Link only. If those are limitations you can live with, Staples Connect has a lot to offer, but if you're looking to start your smart home from scratch, consider waiting to see what happens with Apple HomeKit and SmartThings 2.0 before buying in.
A new design, inside and out
The new Staples Connect Hub reinvents its build, eschewing the white, modem-esque design of the original in favor of a more modern black cylinder. It's bulkier than version 1.0, and it won't fit cleanly onto most router shelves, but you won't need to keep it plugged into your router if you don't want to -- a nice flexibility improvement over the original.
There's new hardware inside the thing, too -- namely, new radios for Bluetooth 4.0 and ZigBee. The latter is the more important one right now, as more and more connected lighting options seem to be coalescing around that protocol, but Bluetooth is playing a growing role in the smart home, too. Add the two of them in with the existing Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Lutron radios, and you're looking at a broader scale of compatibility than SmartThings (Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and ZigBee) or Wink (the same, plus Bluetooth).
Staples can also claim greater compatibility on the software side of things, with native apps for Android and Windows 8 along with distinct iPhone and iPad apps for iOS users. There's also a full-featured Web-interface, something both Wink and SmartThings currently lack.
All of that adds up to a fairly rich ecosystem of products and features, but it isn't a perfect one. You still won't find any Belkin WeMo products integrated with Staples Connect (SmartThings supports them, and even just added direct compatibility with WeMo LEDs), nor will you find support for products in the Nest family, including the Nest Protect smoke detector and the Nest-acquired Dropcam Pro.
That last omission is the most notable. Staples Connect offers reasonable Nest alternatives in the thermostat and smoke detector categories, but the camera section is sorely underdeveloped, with native support for D-Link cameras only. Given the growing number of well-reviewed options in the connected camera space, Staples Connect seems to sit behind the curve.
The setup process
Staples Connect is one of the easier smart home systems to get started with. Just plug the hub in, connect it with your router via Ethernet, then enter your Wi-Fi password into the app. After that, you can unplug it and move it somewhere else -- as soon as you plug it back in, it'll boot right back up.
Those are the same basic steps that you'll need to follow to set up a Wink Hub, but we've had hit-and-miss results with that system. Of the two, Staples Connect seems like the smoother experience to me.
Staples Connect also seems a lot better at pairing with devices. For my tests, I took the system home to my apartment and paired it with a Philips Hue LED, an Ecolink open/closed sensor, a Pico remote control from Lutron, a D-Link camera, and a variety of ZigBee light bulbs that we had on hand. With the exception of the D-Link camera, which required me to fiddle around with a separate D-Link app first, all of them paired quickly and easily.